"We never thought of it as a film about death"

An interview with Vanessa Gould, director of Obit

A spirited, humorous and entertaining portrait of obituary writers at the New York Times, Obit is never as sober or staid at its subject suggests. As one of its leading scribes notes, “Obits have nothing to do with death and everything to do with life.” Teeming with colorful anecdotes, about how to capture the lives of the famous and noteworthy in a few columns, the film is an exuberant mix of interviews with the crack journalists at the obit desk and eye-catching splashes of archival footage that give color and texture to their subjects. Director Vanessa Gould speaks with DOC10’s Anthony Kaufman about cultural anthropology, journalism, and “rescuing” history.

Why obits?

Obits, in many ways, are like documentaries in print.  Bound by space or time, the essence of the story must be distilled and communicated efficiently, each word or minute carrying a hefty burden. As a filmmaker, I was riveted after I started reading the obits - by the form and by the content. The stories told every day about the lives of people - both known and unknown - are amazing.  Taken as a whole, it's a kind of cultural anthropology.  

On the surface, the topic doesn't sound very upbeat, but, of course, your film is quite lively and funny. Did you always set out to make a film about death that would be celebratory, or did that evolve through the making of the movie and meeting your subjects?

We never thought of it as a film about death. As with life, its poignance and gravity is defined by the inescapable relationship of opposites – between life and death. The stories that energized us, and made us feel - whether it was optimistic or philosophical or existential or exuberant or vital - are the things that made it into the film.

Speaking of your subjects, why did you choose these specific journalists, and were there people that you interviewed for the film that didn't make the final cut?

The writers and editors in the film are, in fact, the full desk of writers at the New York Times. They are some of the most talented journalists in the world at what they do, and so I decided early on to focus on the Times. Everyone interviewed made it into the film.  And thankfully so, as they are all so eloquent and their perspectives are singular. 

The topic also doesn't sound very cinematic. But one of the things that I love about the film is that it's far more visually exciting than some of the other documentaries that have been made recently about reporters. How did you develop your visual strategies for the film and did they change over time?

It was clear from the beginning that the subject matter had to be elevated by the filmmaking process. Otherwise, you may as well write a book instead. But that was one of the most fun and fertile processes of the project, given the rich archival footage we found. When I started, I said to myself, let's try to unearth archival images and footage that - for any obvious reason - might never see the light of day again. "Rescuing" that material from the history bins was cathartic, and always felt right.  It opened all of our imaginations, and I hope it does for audiences, as well.

I imagine it's been about a year since you finished the film, and it's finally now getting out into the world in a bigger way with distribution plans. With the way the world has changed in the last several months, is there anything that you think about your movie differently than when it first premiered in April of 2016?

Well, as many people know, the world lost a lot of incredible people in 2016. So, we actually went back and updated it a bit in January 2017. That was unexpected.  Separately, given the political climate, a lot of people have taken some comfort in the way the film takes a longer view on history. Many of the lives illustrated in the film belonged to people who fought great battles, who suffered life-defining losses, and pushed back against painful social ills.  Stories like that can help us step out of the granular moment, and can remind us that the pendulum is always swinging, and the arc of history is large long and varied and complex.

Paula Froehle